Superheroes Are Ruining Your Children (Again)

I’m sure this is a variant of a theme that has repeated itself for years, though I wonder if this time it has some chops:

Professor Sharon Lamb, from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, accuses the new generation of superheroes, exemplified by Robert Downey Junior’s playboy millionnaire Iron Man, of being bad role models for young boys.

Unlike conventional superheroes such as Superman, who stood for justice, fairness and decency, the modern macho superheroes portray a negative masculinity, characterised by mindless aggression and rampant sexism. Lamb, who surveyed 674 boys aged four to 18, claimed these hardnosed heroes may be damaging the social skills of teenagers and even affecting their performance at school.

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” she said.

“Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic, and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity,” she said.

“These men, like Iron Man, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

Probably not much in the way of chops, then, or indeed a mention of parenting. At least it’s not brought to you by the people at Westbro. I expected more from a scientist than the exhaustive catalogue of two superheroes – Iron Man and Superman. Sure, she has conveniently bypassed the inward-looking, non-killing millionaire, Batman, whose reinvention has been one of the largest of the current Hollywood franchises (because that would contradict her rant).

Though to be honest, there are so many holes in these claims, I would end up loosing many hours of sleep trying to highlight them. We’ve all seen the notions concerning violence in cinema effecting young people (though Japan, which has some of the most messed-up and violent films, has very low crime rates for a developed country, so we can’t make generalisations) and this all sounds like it’s along the same lines. We watch violence and bad behaviour, we become violence and bad behaviour – is the assumption.

However, on the note about women being exploited, I think there is something to be noted. Perhaps Scalzi is onto something. It’s a much broader problem in Hollywood (and culture) not something limited to superhero films. The point about flaunting bling – well, I’m tempted to rant about neoliberal culture and how flaunting bling is surely the apogee of an industry and system that has acted similarly for decades. Cut short: again, the problem goes deeper than superheroes.

Has anyone else found interesting studies on this theme? I remember something from Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay about how comic book heroes and foreign policies were related, but I can’t find the relevant pages right now.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Fredric Wertham would be proud. I’m presuming Professor Lamb cites The Seduction of the Innocent in her research.

  2. “There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” she said.” Well, actually no, there isn’t. This is just showing her ignorance of the comics genre in general and that her knowledge of Iron Man is limited to the two most recent films. Comic books heroes and villains have always had serious psychological issues which are continually explored in comics. Iron Man has always been a playboy millionaire with problems, especially alcholism. A very famous story, Demon in a Bottle from 1979 explores his alcoholism. If it’s not comics, it’s computer games, or TV, or films. They brought in the comic book code and the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s after Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent said comics were corrupting youth. He was wrong, of course. Same old finger pointing nonsense.

    On the wider subject of women in comics and their portrayal, a quick search of Women in Refrigerators and WIR Syndrome will yield some interesting results.

  3. This can’t be right.

    I’m old enough to remember the following corrupting youth:
    -Video nasties, ’80s
    -Rap music, early to mid ’90s
    -Violent vodeo games, late ’90s to present
    -The internet, 2000 to present

    I’m pretty sure it was our grandfathers who were corrupted by comic books…

  4. Ooops!
    That should of course read:
    -Violent video games…

  5. It makes me laugh to think of a (probably middle aged) female professor using the word ‘bling.’

    Though I don’t agree with everything she says, I can kind of see where she’s coming from. If you look at today’s superhero films, it’s all about explosions and special effects and action. Actual heroism and the good of mankind play second fiddle, if they get a look-in at all. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that’s how it is.

    I think she would prefer some more positive, altrustic role models who do good for the sake of doing good and treat women like ladies; unfortunately I don’t think such a character would bring teenage boys flocking to the cinema.

  6. Stephen – it does show ignorance, doesn’t it? It’s like she’s selectively chosen the comic book characters to fit her theory. You should do a large blog post on that – I think it would be interesting.

    Ole – yeah, plenty of things that have had the finger pointed at them!

    Rachel – “Actual heroism and the good of mankind play second fiddle, if they get a look-in at all.” I wonder if this has anything to do with how cinema reflects the problems of cultures? Are films not interested in heroism, because society sees so little of it in the news etc – but they are shown footage of war over and over again as if it’s some crude film itself?

  7. Very tempting. Hmm, will have a think on it and I might have to split the blog post in two.

  8. As Stephen said above, it seems as if this woman has very little knowledge about the history of comics and superheroes.

    Iron Man has been portrayed as an arrogant playboy with substance abuse problems for four decades now. Sarcastic and aggressive heroes have been around for thirty years or so as well. If anything, the trend towards big muscles, big guns, senseless violence superheroes peaked in the early to mid 1990s with characters like Cable, Bishop, Spawn, Deathblow, Deathhead, (a lot of those characters were called Death something or other), etc… Those characters were already on their way out when I drifted away from superhero comics. There even was Deadpool, who was a sort of parody of those trends.

    So based on the article (since I haven’t read the actual paper and she might well be more nuanced there), I’d say that this is a deeply flawed study.